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MLS Sudden Impact: Whitecaps set to battle old rivals

Mistakes have been made, as the euphemism holds, but that's all part of the expansion franchise game, and in any case none of that really matters right this minute.

For the Montreal Impact will officially make the leap to the top flight of North American pro soccer on Saturday, and that's all anyone who follows the beautiful game in Quebec really cares about.

The stated aim from Impact president and owner Joey Saputo when Major League Soccer granted Montreal a franchise 18 months ago was that his squad not play like a typical expansion team.

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Newly minted skipper Davy Arnaud, an 11-year veteran who was scooped up from Sporting Kansas City in a trade last fall, went one further this week when he was handed the armband: the Impact thinks it can make the playoffs.

The Seattle Sounders turned the trick in 2009 and the Portland Timbers came close in 2011, but it remains a tall order, especially in light of the Canadian precedents – both Vancouver, Saturday's opponent, and Toronto were at or near the foot of the table in their maiden campaigns.

And the Impact will be mindful of avoiding the organizational upheaval that plagued both those teams in their first seasons – given that Saputo and director of football Nick DeSantis have shown an itchy trigger finger in the recent past hints at an intriguing sub-plot.

The Impact opted for an MLS neophyte in appointing former U.S. national team assistant coach Jesse Marsch as the team's inaugural manager, but Marsch played in the league for 14 years – he is just 38, the same age as Impact striker Eddy Sebrango – and is highly regarded in U.S. coaching circles.

Saputo will hope that form and results give him little more manoeuvring room than his fellow Canadian team owners, who parted ways with their initial coaching hires within two seasons.

And as the team drew the curtains on a busy seven-week preseason camp, during which it travelled to Mexico, California and Florida and piled up 5-3-7 record in exhibitions, there is considerable excitement around the squad and its supporters.

"It's for real, there's a lot of buzz and you can sense it as a player," Arnaud said. "I know they've sold quite a few tickets already for the home opener, we notice all that. I think the city is going to embrace the team, it's going to be fun."

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The Impact has been around for 19 years, but has undergone dramatic changes, said midfielder Patrice Bernier, who began his pro career for his hometown side more than a decade ago.

"It's not the same, when I left it was basically semi-professional, now the structure can be compared to pretty much any club in Europe, other than maybe the giants," he said.

There are only six holdovers from last year in Montreal's 28-member squad, and few of them are in the picture for starting roles.

One who may surprise more than a few people is the Cuban-born Sebrango, who came to the team four years ago from the Vancouver Whitecaps.

He briefly hung up his boots last season but was coaxed out of retirement when the team started sliding down the NASL standings – after earning a training camp invite, he looks set to open the season either as a second striker in a 4-4-2, or, more likely, as a late-game specialist substitute.

"It's been a little bit of a crazy year, from being retired to coming back to working with the academy and now being here for the first team, it's exciting," said Sebrango, who called the matchup between his current and former team, "a huge moment."

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This is a team that was built from the back line out. Jamaican international goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, acquired from the L.A. Galaxy, will be a key player, as will veteran defenders Mitch Wahl, Josh Gardner and Shavar Thomas.

Two other veterans, Columbian defender Nelson Rivas, formerly of Inter Milan, and fellow centre-back Matteo Ferrari, another former Serie A standout, are working their way back from injury.

"First and foremost we're a blue-collar team that's going to push every team we play ... they're going to be in a dogfight," said fullback Jeb Brovsky, who was snapped up from Vancouver in the expansion draft.

The midfield features Arnaud, 21-year-old Brazilian midfielder Felipe Martins – whose engine-room partnership with Bernier caught Marsch's attention in preseason – left-sided attacking midfielder Justin Mapp, and Gambian speedster Sanna Nyassi, who can also play in a more advanced role.

The biggest question marks are up front, where ex-Chivas striker Justin Braun will vie for playing time with Sebrango, former Seattle Sounder Mike Fucito, and first overall draft pick Andrew Wenger, a human Swiss Army knife who can also play in midfield or in the back four.

"We didn't score a ton of goals this preseason, but we did score, we created chances, so I think the most important thing is getting good spots ... especially in preseason when not everybody is on the same page," Arnaud said.

It had been expected that Montreal would be able to count on a proved goal-scoring forward in the person of Houston's Bryan Ching, the first pick in the expansion draft.

Montreal picked Ching, the best striker available, even though he had signalled he had no intention of playing for the Impact, and was later unable to squeeze more than a conditional draft choice out of the Dynamo for shipping the striker back home.

If the end game behind picking up Ching was to try to get Houston to deal Quebec-born defender Andre Hainault, it failed rather miserably.

The Impact has also been frustrated in its attempts to attract a designated player – like David Beckham or Thierry Henry – whose salary is mostly exempt for cap purposes.

And then there's the stadium question.

The opening date of a newly expanded Saputo Stadium has been pushed to June because of various funding and planning delays – the Impact will play its first six home games on a plastic pitch in the Olympic Stadium.

Last week, fingers were pointed at the club and its contractors after a large concrete panel fell into one of the Big O's parking facilities – part of the Saputo Stadium building site sits atop an underground garage – no one was injured.

In the end it will surely be little more than another bump in the road for an organization that wears its ambitions on its sleeves.

After this weekend, the attention will turn to the 50,000-plus who gather on March 17 for the home opener – can they break their attendance record of 58,000? – and what happens on the field.

"I think the soccer public in Quebec deserves this, the best possible calibre," Bernier said, "it's going to be great."

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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